In the six days after top Chinese officials secretly determined they were probably facing a pandemic from the new coronavirus, the city of Wuhan hosted a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people and millions began their annual trip home for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
President Xi Jinping warned the public on January 20 – the seventh day – but by then, more than 3,000 people had been infected during almost a week of public silence, according to internal documents obtained by The Associated Press (AP) news agency and estimates based on retrospective infection data.
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The delay from January 14 to January 20 was neither the first mistake made by Chinese officials, nor the longest lag, as governments around the world have dragged their feet for weeks and even months in addressing the virus.
But the delay by the first country to face the new coronavirus came at a critical time – the beginning of the outbreak. China’s attempt to walk a line between alerting the public and avoiding panic set the stage for a pandemic that has now infected nearly 2 million people and taken more than 126,000 lives.
“This is tremendous,” said Dr Zuo-Feng Zhang, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If they took action six days earlier, there would have been much fewer patients and medical facilities would have been sufficient.”
However, another epidemiologist, Benjamin Cowley at the University of Hong Kong, noted that it may have been a tricky call. If health officials raise the alarm too soon it can damage their credibility and cripple their ability to mobilise the public, he said.
The six-day delay by China’s leaders in Beijing came on top of almost two weeks during which the national Center for Disease Control (CDC) did not register any new cases, internal bulletins obtained by AP confirmed. Yet during that time, from January 5 to January 17, hundreds of patients were appearing in hospitals not only in Wuhan, where the illness was first detected in a market, but also across the country.
China’s rigid controls on information, bureaucratic hurdles and a reluctance to send bad news up the chain of command muffled early warnings, analysts say.
Without these internal reports, it took the first case outside China, in Thailand on January 13, to galvanise leaders in Beijing into recognising the danger before them.
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied suppressing information in the early days, saying it immediately reported the outbreak to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“Allegations of a cover-up or lack of transparency in China are groundless,” said foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a Thursday news conference.
The documents show that the head of China’s National Health Commission, Ma Xiaowei, laid out a grim assessment of the situation in a confidential January 14 teleconference with provincial health officials.
A memo states that the teleconference was held to convey instructions on the coronavirus from President Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, but does not specify what those instructions were.
“The epidemic situation is still severe and complex, the most severe challenge since SARS in 2003, and is likely to develop into a major public health event,” the memo cites Ma as saying.
In a faxed statement, the National Health Commission said China has published information on the outbreak in an “open, transparent, responsible and timely manner,” in accordance with “important instructions” repeatedly issued by Xi.
The documents come from an anonymous source in the medical field who did not want to be named for fear of retribution. The AP confirmed the contents with two other sources in public health familiar with the teleconference.
Under a section titled “sober understanding of the situation,” the memo singled out the case in Thailand, saying that the situation had “changed significantly” because of the possible spread of the virus abroad.
“All localities must prepare for and respond to a pandemic,” it said.
The National Health Commission distributed a 63-page set of instructions to provincial health officials, obtained by the AP. The instructions, marked “not to be publicly disclosed,” ordered health officials nationwide to identify suspected cases, hospitals to open fever clinics, and doctors and nurses to don protective gear.
In public, however, officials continued to downplay the threat.
“The risk of sustained human-to-human transmission is low,” Li Qun, the head of the China CDC’s emergency centre, told Chinese state television on January 15.
Under the new orders, the next day officials in Wuhan and elsewhere finally got CDC-approved testing kits and a green light to start confirming new cases. Across the country, dozens of reported cases then began to surface, in some cases among patients who were infected earlier but had not yet been tested.
On January 20, Xi made his first public comments on the virus, saying the outbreak “must be taken seriously”. A leading Chinese epidemiologist, Dr Zhong Nanshan, meanwhile, announced for the first time that the virus was transmissible from person to person on national television.
The delay may support accusations by US President Donald Trump that the Chinese government’s secrecy held back the world’s response to the virus. However, even the public announcement on January 20 left the United States nearly two months to prepare for the pandemic.
Medical staff at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25 as the army deployed medical specialists to the city that was then at the epicentre of the outbreak and had been sealed off from the outside world [Hector Retamal/AFP]
Some health experts said Beijing took decisive action given the information available.
“They may not have said the right thing, but they were doing the right thing,” said Dr Ray Yip, the retired founding head of the US Centers for Disease Control’s office in China. “On the 20th, they sounded the alarm for the whole country, which is not an unreasonable delay.”
But others say an earlier warning would have saved lives. If the public had been warned a week earlier to practise social distancing, wear masks and cut back on travel, cases could have been cut by up to two-thirds, one paper later found.
“The earlier you act,” said Los Angeles epidemiologist Zhang, “the easier you can control the disease.”
China still spying on U.S. coronavirus vaccine efforts, Wray tells Congress
Chinese hackers are still trying to snoop on American coronavirus vaccine efforts, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on Thursday, saying they can actually track the attempts. Mr. Wray said they’ll see a public announcement from a company on its vaccine progress, then within days they’ll see cyber penetration efforts against that company “that ties…
Chinese hackers are still trying to snoop on American coronavirus vaccine efforts, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on Thursday, saying they can actually track the attempts.
Mr. Wray said they’ll see a public announcement from a company on its vaccine progress, then within days they’ll see cyber penetration efforts against that company “that ties back to Chinese actors.”
“They’re trying to essentially jump to the front of the line by stealing information from others,” Mr. Wray said.
He declared China the largest counterterrorism focus of the FBI, and pointed to thousands of open investigations into Chinese attempts to penetrate American institutions.
Mr. Wray first warned in early summer that China was attempting to compromise U.S. coronavirus efforts.
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China attempted to cover up scope of COVID-19, could have largely prevented outbreak: GOP report
China could have prevented two-thirds of its coronavirus cases before the end of February had it followed international health guidelines at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, a new congressional report concluded. The report, released Monday and authored by Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoes earlier findings that China made efforts…
China could have prevented two-thirds of its coronavirus cases before the end of February had it followed international health guidelines at the beginning of the outbreak in Wuhan, a new congressional report concluded.
The report, released Monday and authored by Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, echoes earlier findings that China made efforts to cover up the severity of the initial spread of the virus and that the government harassed and detained journalists, scientists and health care professionals who were voicing concerns about its handling of the outbreak.
“It is beyond doubt that the [Chinese Communist Party] actively engaged in a cover-up designed to obfuscate data, hide relevant public health information, and suppress doctors and journalists who attempted to warn the world,” the report said. “Research shows the CCP could have reduced the number of cases in China by up to 95 percent had it fulfilled its obligations under international law and responded to the outbreak in a manner consistent with best practices.”
The report also said that the Chinese government was “legally obliged” on Dec. 27 to inform the World Health Organization that the outbreak in Wuhan may constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30.
The report’s conclusions take aim at the WHO, from which President Trump announced a U.S. withdrawal in May, and said that the United Nations-backed organization was “heavily influenced by the Chinese Communist Party” in its messaging of the outbreak.
“The WHO has been complicit in the spread and normalization of CCP propaganda and disinformation,” the report stated, citing outside experts. “By repeating as truth statements that were misleading, if not lies, the WHO negatively impacted the global response.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and ranking member of the Democrat-led committee, said in a statement Monday that “it is crystal-clear that had the CCP been transparent, and had the head of the WHO cared more about global health than appeasing the CCP, lives could have been spared and widespread economic devastation could have been mitigated.”
There have been over 31 million reported cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. More than 961,000 people have died from the virus, with 199,525 deaths in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The global population currently stands at 7.8 billion.
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China slams US ‘bullying’, warns of action over TikTok, WeChat |NationalTribune.com
China has accused the United States of “bullying” and threatened to take “necessary” countermeasures after Washington banned downloads of the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok and effectively blocked the use of the messaging super-app WeChat. “China urges the US to abandon bullying, cease its wrongful actions and earnestly maintain fair and transparent international rules and order,”…
China has accused the United States of “bullying” and threatened to take “necessary” countermeasures after Washington banned downloads of the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok and effectively blocked the use of the messaging super-app WeChat.
“China urges the US to abandon bullying, cease its wrongful actions and earnestly maintain fair and transparent international rules and order,” the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said in a statement on Saturday.
“If the US insists on going its own way, China will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies.”
The United States Commerce Department announced the bans on Friday, citing national security grounds although China and the companies have denied US user data is collected for spying
Under Friday’s order, the Tencent-owned WeChat app would lose functionality in the US from Sunday onwards. TikTok users will be banned from installing updates but could keep accessing the service through November 12.
The timeframe gives TikTok’s parent group ByteDance some breathing space to clinch an agreement over the fate of its US operations.
“We disagree with the decision from the Commerce Department, and are disappointed that it stands to block new app downloads from Sunday and ban use of the TikTok app in the US from November 12,” ByteDance said in a statement.
“We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order.”
START HERE | Should TikTok be banned? (10:50)
TikTok says it has 100 million US users and 700 million globally.
‘Very very popular’
Friday’s order follows weeks of deal-making over TikTok, with US President Donald Trump pressuring ByteDance to sell TikTok’s US operations to a domestic company to satisfy Washington’s concerns over TikTok’s data collection and related issues.
California tech giant Oracle recently struck a deal with TikTok along those lines, although details remain foggy.
Trump said on Friday said he was open to a deal, noting that “we have some great options and maybe we can keep a lot of people happy,” suggesting that even Microsoft, which said its TikTok bid had been rejected, might continue to be involved, as well as Oracle and Walmart.
Trump noted that TikTok was “very, very popular,” said “we have to have the total security from China,” and added that “we can do a combination of both”.
The bans are in response to a pair of executive orders issued by Trump on August 6 that gave the Commerce Department 45 days to determine what transactions to block from the apps he deemed pose a national security threat. That deadline expires on Sunday.
The Trump administration has ramped up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from US digital networks amid escalating tensions with Beijing on a range of issues from trade and human rights to the battle for tech supremacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the Commerce Department’s order “violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms”.
INSIDE STORY | Why does Trump want to ban Tiktok? (24:11)
The action against WeChat, used by over 1 billion people worldwide, bars the transfer of funds or processing of payments to or from people in the US through it. Users could also start to experience significantly slower service or sporadic outages from Sunday night.
WeChat developer Tencent Holdings’ called the order “unfortunate” but said it “will continue to discuss with the government and other stakeholders in the US ways to achieve a long-term solution”.
WeChat has had an average of 19 million daily active users in the US, analytics firms Apptopia said in early August. It is popular among Chinese students, ex-pats and some Americans who have personal or business relationships in China.
The order does not ban US companies from doing businesses on WeChat outside the US, which will be welcome news to US firms such as Walmart and Starbucks that use WeChat’s embedded ‘mini-app’ programmes to facilitate transactions and engage consumers in China, officials said.
The order will not bar transactions with Tencent’s other businesses, including its online gaming operations, and will not prohibit Apple, Google or others from offering TikTok or WeChat apps anywhere outside the US.
WeChat users have sued to stop the ban, and a federal judge in California on Friday set an emergency hearing for Saturday at 1:30 pm Pacific time.
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